5 January 2013
It has been said that “behind every successful man there is a strong woman.” In Ethiopia there is an addition to this: “behind every successful woman there is no one,” Implying that what helped make her successful was avoiding the social pressures of getting married and not pursuing her own education or career. This is not a society where women have many advantages and to be financially, professionally and academically successful an Ethiopian woman will face challenges and criticism every single day.
Many young girls are pressured by their families to immigrate to the Middle East for job opportunities. Often they work as house servants to families they cannot communicate with, and in a culture that is very modern and unfamiliar. They use washing machines, chemical cleaners and cook food that Ethiopians have never seen let alone touched or tasted. Risk of failure is high in these job settings. Even more dangerous is the sexual violence that is all too common among these Ethiopian immigrant workers. Women have come home maybe with more savings to their name, but at a high cost. Many women cannot afford to return home or if they migrated illegally cannot resolve the logistics to get back to Ethiopia. Knowing all of this I inquired to my friends why it is so popular for Ethiopians to go work there at all and I was told:
“Yes, work in the Middle East is difficult for Ethiopian women, but not as dangerous as being poor in their own country.”
Immediately I knew this to be true but was never keen enough to make the observation on my own. A young girl without education or a supportive family is a burden and must find her own route of stability. Often teenage girls are sent to work as a house keeper (“saretena”) for another family. Here she will work 365 days a year cooking, cleaning, washing and pretending to be invisible. This family may or may not send her to school even though public education is free school takes at least 5 hours which is time they could be working at home. I have heard that some saretenas wish to become pregnant by a man in the family so as to ensure stability in their life instead of someday be let go towards an unknown future. Every household has a saretena though some use their own daughters which is why on average girls have lower grades and drop out of school at a higher frequency. On my compound we have 3 saretenas: Lomii (9 years) Salomwit (15 years) and Mimi (18yrs). Only Mimi dropped out before high school, the other Salomwit will probably quit after 10th grade (next year). Lomii is an orphan who’s parents gave her up because they could not afford to feed and cloth her, she’s only in kindergarten and I worry for her future that they might pull her out of school so that she may work full time at the house.
Seeing how women survive in Ethiopian reminds me of the pre-civil war days in my own country, but instead of race people discriminate by gender and class. Being poor is dangerous anywhere, but especially in a developing country where you will not commonly receive sympathy because for nearly 85% of the country who live on around $1 each day sympathy is too much of a luxury for those who are just trying to get by.